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Heartbreaking, illuminating and balanced

  • Apr 4, 2010
One of the things that I remember about my childhood in the 1950s and 60s was how little could be done for family members who became ill. The word "cancer: was barely spoken. Heart disease was mentioned, but only as a reason that someone was permanently disabled. Doctors, who could do so much less than than can today, were venerated far more than they are today.

Henrietta Lacks was a young African American woman who listened to her doctors and didn't question. In that she was not unusual. As I read about her I could not let go of a feeling of dread. How would I feel knowing that my mother's cells were famous in the research community and that portions of her name were used without the slightest concern that this nicknamed substance had once been a person, that her medical records had been freely given out to reporters, that my brothers and me had been given blood to researchers from Johns Hopkins, under extremely questionable circumstances? How would I feel hearing that her cells had been donated, when in fact, there was no donation? When I read the callous comments of the director of medical genetics who took the blood without adequately explaining its purpose, brushed off the entire situation and casually included Harriet's name and her children in a report that made her reputation, I nearly fainted. We may think that researchers are more aware of these things today, but we shouldn't take that for granted. Much of what is reported in this book is still perfectly legal. It was nice to see that this woman's behavior is now against the law.

This amazing book tells at least part of the story of how Americans went from the early 1950s to where we are today. Henrietta's story is shaped not only by her poverty but by her race and gender. When you know what medical research has accomplished it's easy to think that its all been for the good. But it's also easy to take the strides we have made for granted. One of the most touching things about this book was reading that Dorothy Lacks, Henrietta's daughter wanted dignity for her mother, and credit, but not money for herself.

I put down the book feeling that today's medical ethics are harder to grapple with than I had ever realized. But I am so glad that Rebecca Skloot wrote this book both to honor Henrietta, and to give us an understanding of the complicated state of today's tissue research situation.

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More The Immortal Life of Henrietta... reviews
review by . July 18, 2013
The way Skloot blends all three of these elements in this account are what makes this an immensely readable account.  The bare facts of the science, while interesting, are not news, but Skloot does a good job putting the bare facts in layman's terms without seeming to talk down to us.  She presents the story in a way that unfolds like a mystery--why is Henrietta Lacks immortal, and why and how did her family not know it.  And as Skloot unfolds the story she lets herself into the …
review by . February 17, 2011
   The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of the medical and scientific progress brought about with the help of the longest-surviving cell line in history; it's also the story of the woman who unknowingly contributed those cells to research, and the effects of that contribution on the woman's family      Rebecca Skloot spent years with the story of Henrietta Lacks, who died prematurely of an advanced case pf metastasized cervical cancer - a case that …
Quick Tip by . August 09, 2010
Read it! I'm serious. Stop reading this, go. Now! Shoo!
review by . February 18, 2010
As another reviewer noted, I worked with HeLa cells in the late 70s and people in the lab knew at least the donor's name at that time, so when I saw this book appear on the market, I jumped to learn the rest of the story.    That, you'll learn. As noted, some parts were more interesting than others, and the book reads a little faster if you can skim. Life can get really hard when your mother dies young. Cancer treatment is bad enough now. It was brutal then.    I …
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Robin123 ()
Ranked #306
Hello everyone!      Like a lot of you, I just love to read. And, as you will see from my reviews I read some of an awful lot of things. I particularly enjoy American history, biographies, … more
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Starred Review. Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about faith, science, journalism, and grace. It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women—Skloot and Deborah Lacks—sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah's mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line—known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta's death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children. Skloot's portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family. Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people. (Feb.) 
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ISBN-10: 1400052173
ISBN-13: 978-1400052172
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Genre: History, Health, Mind & Body, Science
Publisher: Crown
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